Legal Business

Comment: Don’t push your luck with partnership

Comment: Don’t push your luck with partnership

Do law firms take partnership for granted? They really shouldn’t as the model has served them so well. Just consider the case. Partnership aligns management and ownership. This has helped large law firms to avoid the patchy governance and rewards-for-mediocrity seen at public companies over the last 20 years and drives partners to a pure form of performance pay. It is inherently long-term and as such has a strong record in promoting independence and ethical standards. And given that law isn’t a capital-intensive trade – at least once you cross the Rubicon of international expansion – partnership is workable (if not ideal) from a financing point of view.

But the killer app of partnership is the meritocratic oddity of institutions aiming to turn a group of workers into owners. It promotes a razor focus on career development and does a lot of the heavy lifting in governance terms at law firms. That obsessive focus on standards and talent coming through the door truly marks out the legal profession from other, less successful industries.

Why the love-letter to partnership? Well, looking at the grim statistics on partner promotions, as we do this month, you can’t escape the feeling that leading law firms are pushing their luck. The top ten largest UK firms, including DLA Piper and Hogan Lovells, together have over 5,500 partners. This group collectively promoted 197 new partners in 2013 – equivalent to 3.5% of their current ranks. These levels are well below the replacement rate needed to sustain partnerships at current sizes and the picture is considerably worse if you look at UK partner prospects. Given that less than half of those making partner trained with their firm or joined at intake level, the traditional track to equity is under unprecedented strain. And as to women making partner – well, even a hard-nosed pragmatist would have to say the current numbers at major City firms – with the honourable exception of Norton Rose – are woeful given the public hand-wringing of recent years.

It still works for now but at a certain point, an increasingly remote partnership will surely cease to function as an effective long-term engagement tool. That would likely leave you with strong junior ranks given the appeal of law. But if joining a law firm really becomes mainly about a start of a career largely focused outside of private practice, the crucial mid-tier associate ranks will be under siege. This is not theoretical – a growing body of research confirms the fading allure of partnership, especially among female lawyers.

Law firm leaders acknowledge this existential threat to partnership but, when it comes down to the annual promotion round, the model is chipped away every year with smaller promotions and more barriers to equity.

We’ve moved into a curious half-life of partnership where the pretence is maintained that the old deal hasn’t changed. But it has changed and we could even soon reach a tipping point where the dominant path for a legal career is one without partnership. That would have huge implications for the UK legal profession. The suspicion is managing partners will come to regret pushing to breaking point the institution that once elevated them.

 

alex.novarese@legalease.co.uk

Legal Business

Comment: Say what you like, City practices taking on larger real estate is a good sign

Comment: Say what you like, City practices taking on larger real estate is a good sign

If upgrading your square footage is any litmus test of how City firms feel about the future then a raft of them including DLA Piper, Bird & Bird and Field Fisher Waterhouse (FFW) can be said to be in confident mood.

As reported by Property Week on Tuesday (11 June), top Global 100 firm DLA is the most recent UK firm looking to expand its City office space, hiring Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) to carry out a search for up to 200,000 sq ft of space, an increase on the 110,000 sq ft office it currently occupies in Noble Street.

Last week, top 40 UK firm FFW reportedly placed a bid to take on several floors of a Thames-side site, and Bird and Bird, which recently announced a turnover increase of 6%, last month took on 142,500 sq ft of office space at Great Portland Estates’ New Fetter Lane office building. Hill Dickinson, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and Gateley all increased their City space late last year.

On the one hand, no real trend can be read into the upgrades as many have either been driven by firms’ need to consolidate multiple sites or move out of old, no longer fit for purpose buildings. DLA, which currently operates out of two bases in London, is looking to bring both offices under one roof prior to the expiry of its current leases. Bird & Bird, meanwhile, is consolidating three into one.

Furthermore, amidst only fledgling signs of economic recovery in Europe, nor should the moves be taken as a sign of City law firms being over confident. Many firms are deeply aware of client perception and JLL director Richard Proctor said: ‘I don’t see a trend of people taking extravagant office space. They are saying that they have got to strike the balance between appearing professional without clients asking why their office looks so expensive.’

All this aside, the expansions are nonetheless a positive sign and Perry said: ‘We have seen a lot of growth in the last few years, the firm has a lot of ambitious plans, we are very confident for the future.’

One trend that has arisen out of the moves is more visible creativity in the way City practices are using their space.

Proctor said: ‘All law firms are looking at ways they can use their space more effectively, include subletting space they don’t use to reduce their overheads.’

Perry added: ‘I suspect that there’s been a movement in the nature of the space that firms wish to use for direct client use so I think certainly we are looking to have much more imaginative options for our client facing area.’

While this may be so, only a handful of firms including Addleshaw Goddard, Reynolds Porter Chamberlain and Eversheds are taking the plunge by going open plan. At least one Magic Circle firm has considered and dismissed the idea of dispensing with their closed office space, and US firms’ use of larger offices to reward those higher up the hierarchy means they will be even further behind.

‘It will take a long time for the large firms, particularly US firms, to move to an open plan model,’ Proctor says.

francesca.fanshawe@legalease.co.uk

Legal Business

Comment: A star signing is one thing but who needs a lateral?

Comment: A star signing is one thing but who needs a lateral?

The worlds of business, politics and sport have since the 1970s fallen increasingly under the spell of the star individual and law has been anything but an exception. As partnership mitigates the heaviest excesses of the winner-takes-all compensation cultures seen in banking, sports and plc management, in law the star culture has manifested to a considerable extent via the partner recruitment market.

The emergence and massive expansion of this international bazaar for senior legal talent over the last 25 years has had a profound impact on the profession – often unhappily so.

This has happened despite widespread acknowledgement that the returns on partner recruitment are patchy – a finding backed by a significant and growing body of research. Compared to internal candidates, external recruits are more expensive even without counting direct recruitment costs, prone to fail in the first two years and more likely to leave. Added to which is the fundamental difficulty of accurately identifying and then persuading key business influencers to move.

Sound familiar?

Yet if such problems are rife in the legal profession, the impact of the sustained downturn in Western economies has done little to deflate the partner bubble. If anything, the upwardly mobile US law firms that have increasingly defined the partner recruitment market at home and abroad have pushed this merry-go-round towards even more aggressive levels.

And this has happened during a period in which the record of partner recruitment has arguably become worse not better. When partners first began moving in the late 1980s, a path was provided for ambitious and driven individuals to find better platforms or just check out of firms going nowhere. Those hires generally did well because there was a clear economic rationale for the move on both sides. The last decade has seen the emergence of a genuinely sideways market for partners who are just moving, well, laterally.

That’s not to suggest that all of this recruitment is irrational. Some firms have used partner recruitment to effectively super-charge their growth, with Latham & Watkins, Kirkland & Ellis and DLA Piper being among the most striking examples in recent years. The poor overall performance of lateral recruitment has always masked the vast discrepancies in individual performance.

Here is our assessment of the track record of partner recruitment: a small group of firms use it very effectively to deliver great results. A much larger group gets returns barely worth the effort once you account for the time and costs of recruitment. What’s left is another minority that performs so badly that firms in the club actually damage their business. But law – like many fields – remains poor at identifying the formula for success.

We consider the experience of a handful of the transferring partners that have excelled in this month’s edition and there are common factors in what makes a star signing an actual success, but it’s never easy. In essence, firms should be strongly biased towards organic progression unless there is a compelling, clear strategic reason to go to market. Then you must have a senior candidate that actually fits the bill and is energised about the opportunity of your team. The best lawyers don’t do it for the money or a home. They do it for the game. They play to win.

alex.novarese@legalease.co.uk

Legal Business

DLA and Simmons promote fewer partners as firms continue to favour Europe

DLA and Simmons promote fewer partners as firms continue to favour Europe

DLA Piper and Simmons & Simmons are among the latest UK firms to announce a reduced number of partnership promotions, appointing 34 and seven lawyers respectively, down from 58 and 10 in 2012.

DLA’s appointments came largely across its US offices, where 19 lawyers were made up to the partnership, with a further seven in continental Europe, four in the UK and four in Australia.

Simmons & Simmons, meanwhile, continued the recent trend among the UKs international firms to favour European promotions, with four in London, compared with one each in the financial hubs of Paris, Milan and Brussels and none in the Middle East or Asia.

Simmons & Simmons senior partner Colin Passmore said: ‘The firm’s business plan envisages significant growth for the firm over the next few years and the promotion of our homegrown talent is integral to this.’

Elsewhere, international firm Kennedys made up five associates in the UK (one each in London, Sheffield and Chelmsford and two in Belfast) and one in Hong Kong. The firm’s six promotions represent a 50% increase on last year and half of this year’s promotions round were women.

Kennedys senior partner Nick Thomas added: ‘I’m proud that we continue to have one of the highest proportions of female partners amongst the top 30 law firms.’

Similarly, DAC Beachcroft has made up five new partners, the same number as last year, taking its total partner numbers to 247. The firm’s London, Birmingham and Manchester offices will take up one partner each while the remainder will be based in Madrid, which saw a number of departures to rival Clyde & Co last month.

Two of the firm’s promotions were within its claims solutions arm – representing around one third of the firm’s staff and approximately £64m in revenue.

The European promotions and nurturing of homegrown talent come as international firms are increasingly focusing their expansion efforts further afield, particularly in Asia.

Other firms to have liberally promoted in London include Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP), which made up a total of nine lawyers – seven in the firm’s London headquarters and one each Frankfurt and Moscow.

Magic Circle firms Clifford Chance and Linklaters also promoted heavily across Europe this year, as did Pinsent Masons.

Jaishree.kalia@legalease.co.uk

Legal Business

Asia round-up: DLA hits Jakarta while Stephenson Harwood expands in Singapore and Beijing

Despite concerns over a cooling eastern economy, UK advisers continue to invest in Asia with DLA Piper and Stephenson Harwood this week making major plays in the region.

DLA Piper has entered into a strategic alliance with Indonesian law firm Almaida Baely & Firmansyah (IAB&F), ramping up its already huge global footprint. Like most international advisers, DLA had previously largely serviced Indonesian work from its Singapore arm.

DLA co-chief executive Nigel Knowles explained the rationale for entering the increasingly feted market: ‘At DLA Piper we make it our business to do business where our clients do business. Indonesia is one of the fastest growing emerging economies in the world, with a young population, burgeoning middle class consumers and growing international trade – it makes sense for us to formalise our close ties with our partners there.’

International advisers have been attracted to soaring rates of direct foreign investment in Indonesia – estimated by the International Monetary Fund to have expanded 400% over the last four years – annual growth rates of over 6% and the potential of a country with a population of a quarter of a billion.

In March 2011, Norton Rose tied up with Jakarta’s Susandarini & Partners, while Stephenson Harwood entered into an association with Christian Teo Purwono & Partners in November the same year. Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) has a longstanding alliance with Hiswara Bunjamin & Tandjung that began over ten years ago.

Magic Circle firms Linklaters and Allen & Overy also have alliances in the country while White & Case is the most recent international firm to enter the market via an association with MD & Partners, which was agreed earlier this year.

IAB&F joins DLA as part of a growing group of ‘relationship firms’, including DLA Phillips Fox in New Zealand, Croatia’s Glinska & Miskovic, Egypt’s Matouk Bassiouny, Sweden’s DLA Nordic and six firms across Africa.

Elsewhere, Stephenson Harwood has ramped up in another much touted market after agreeing a formal association with Singapore’s Virtus Law. This bypasses the need for a qualifying foreign law practice (QFLP) licence to offer Singaporean law. Despite 23 international firms – including Stephenson Harwood – last year applying for the incoming QFLP, only four were granted in the first round.

Stephenson Harwood also this week opened a representative office in Beijing, after receiving approval from the Ministry of Justice late last year. James Zhang, a legal director at the firm, is heading up the branch, which will focus on corporate and maritime law.

The relative difficulty of securing local licences has been seen as a driver for alliances between foreign and local firms. However, Singapore is widely expected to eventually move towards further liberalisation.

Elsewhere, Legal Week today (2 May) reports that Linklaters and Baker & McKenzie are the latest firms to secure approval to launch local offices in South Korea. A large group of foreign law firms last year applied for local licences in response to Bar liberalisation. Eighteen firms have so far received approvals from the Ministry of Justice, including Clifford Chance, DLA Piper, K&L Gates and Herbert Smith Freehills.

david.stevenson@legalease.co.uk

Legal Business

A star signing is one thing but who needs a lateral?

A star signing is one thing but who needs a lateral?

The worlds of business, politics and sport have since the 1970s fallen increasingly under the spell of the star individual and law has been anything but an exception. As partnership mitigates the heaviest excesses of the winner-takes-all compensation cultures seen in banking, sports and plc management, in law the star culture has manifested to a considerable extent via the partner recruitment market.

Legal Business

HSF becomes third UK firm to open its doors in Seoul

Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) opened in Seoul last month, becoming the third UK firm to open in Korea, after Clifford Chance and DLA Piper.

The office will be co-headed by London disputes partner Tony Dymond and Singapore corporate partner Lewis McDonald, both of whom are relocating to the region.

The Seoul office will primarily focus on outbound work. It opens with two partners, three associates and a paralegal.

Legal Business

DLA Piper ramps up French offering with boutique addition

DLA Piper’s recent takeover of French corporate boutique Frieh Bouhenic is the most significant development in a spate of activity involving UK-based international firms in Paris at the end of the summer.

The international giant officially joined forces with the corporate firm on 1 October. Eleven-partner Frieh Bouhenic is ranked in the second tier for private equity in The Legal 500 EMEA, with a particular reputation for leveraged buyout work. Recent highlights include advising the consortium comprising Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, AXA Private Equity and Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec on the acquisition of SPIE.

Legal Business

Emerging markets dominate 2012 partner promotions round

Good news for senior associates in emerging markets: there are now more partners than ever being made up in Asia. If you are an aspiring associate in Asia or Australia you stand a much greater chance of making partner at a UK firm now than five years ago. According to data collected by LB, this year the UK’s top 25 firms made up 48 partners in Asia, compared to just 26 in 2008.

Legal Business

Dewey management in denial as exits continue

Management at Dewey & LeBoeuf has reacted defensively to widespread partner exits in 2012, contending the firm’s position is ‘strong’ and that it will ‘meet its financial targets for the year’.

Dewey has already seen a mass exodus of partners from its business since the start of the year, with almost 70 partners having departed – one of the highest number of partner departures in such a short timeframe.